How young is too young for plastic surgery?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

When a teenage girl detests her uncommonly big breasts or a young boy is embarrassed by a bump on his nose, parents, plastic surgeons and the children themselves must decide: Is it right to operate?

More than 326,000 18-and-unders had cosmetic procedures in 2004 to correct something that made them self-conscious, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. But is plastic surgery, with the risks it involves, the right way to deal with these common teenage tribulations? In some cases, absolutely, says Frederick Lukash, M.D., a New York plastic surgeon who has operated on many youngsters whose self-image was on the rocks.

No Easy Fix

It's hard to find teens who are completely content with their faces and physiques. Add the misery of peer teasing to the mix, and many a youth might jump at a perceived fast fix for their "flawed" body parts.

But surgery shouldn't be seen as an easy way out, according to Lukash, who frowns on surgery when weight loss or the like can get a similar result. "I'm adamant that teenage plastic surgery has a definite place, but it has to be on the right individual for the right reason," says Lukash. A motivation that fails to make his cut: "not making the cheerleading squad because your thighs are too fat."

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, parents should ask these questions to help assess whether their child's reasons for surgery are right, and to help make sure their teens are physically and mentally prepared:

  • Is it the teen him- or herself who desires the procedure? Parental support is essential, but the teenager is the one who must be fully committed to making the change.
  • Is the teen realistic about the benefits to be gained? The youngster should understand that cosmetic surgery isn't about making life a cakewalk, and should know the limited benefit a procedure can bring about.
  • Is the teen mature enough to appreciate the downside? The young person has to be emotionally balanced to make a well-considered choice and to endure the sometimes difficult healing process following surgery.

The decision should be completely individualized, Lukash points out, "based on a patient's physical condition, their emotional condition, the needs they have, and their ability to understand what they're going to get."